THE STORIES I told my boys were about things that had happened, things they or I would have liked to happen, things – in one way or another – I was scared of happening.
In that, they were no different to the stories I told myself. Like all myth their purpose was to tie people to people, and those people to place – the details, the way they fell and morphed over time, could be logical or illogical. That didn’t matter.
They mostly starred two boys, Beebop and Ping Pong, and were open to requests.
“Can it have lollipops in it?” Kolya might ask.
“And balloons,” Finn might say.
“And poo,” Kolya might counter.
“And dead ends,” Finn might say.
“Dead ends?” I’d say. “Like in the Science Museum – the mirror maze?”
“Yeah,” he’d say, but uncertainly.
Their length and complexity would depend on how tired I was, how late it was, how much of the story was new, based on that day's events, and how much was a rehash of previous Beebop and Ping Pong adventures.
And I was tired. Both boys had wet their beds three nights in a row. Jess had got up and gone through to the box room to change their pyjamas, strip their bedding, but I’d been woken too – by the boys first, then by Jess’s elbows, repeatedly, when she got back into bed.
Finn had also woken to complain about his sore arm, and Kolya had been snoring more than usual, brimming with mucus. We were edging towards the winter equinox; our house held cold more efficiently than heat; the front door rattled as Melbourne tried to force its way in.
And then there was work, always work – dreary dad, pummelled pater, frazzled father.
Between getting the boys to sleep and getting Jess and I to sleep I’d been writing, or trying to, a story about a love triangle – a husband, a wife, the wife’s lover. The husband had never seen his wife’s lover, not even a photograph, but was completely in thrall to him.
The invisible lover predated him, had come between his wife and her previous husband, and then between his wife and him. For the husband, the lover’s hold on his wife’s affections was draining, then energising, then draining again.
The wife wasn’t to blame. She needed her lover, just as, on some level, the husband needed her to have her lover, because … just thinking about it wore me out. I was being sapped by a story about someone being sapped, and by another that kept leaning on my brain while I slept.
I’d wake in the darkness and sit up in bed, disturbed by the feelings and images poking through my subconscious. In my waking dream-state it all made sense. Stones, furniture, bottles – these were inanimate objects, and they existed as part of the world. Rabbits, fish, people – these were powered by a force they’d been granted but didn’t own, that could be employed at will until it left, of its own volition, at which point those rabbits, fish and people would cease to be.
I’d scribble on the pad next to the bed, fall back under. In the morning, I’d look at the notes, no longer dreamy. One I couldn’t even remember writing said “Frankenstein”, and below it, in capital letters: ANIMA. It had been important. Was it still important? I didn’t know.
We’d been at the pool. Kolya, hands by his sides, navy trunks on, jumped from the edge, kerploosh, splashing his young male instructor. In the water he was flanked by two other children, both smaller than him and of roughly the same competency. Maybe they were better than him, they’d probably had more lessons, but that line of thinking killed me. Please don't let me the parent of the slowest kid at future egg-and-spoon races, I thought. I’d always felt heart sorry for those children and their parents.
Watching Kolya watch his youthful instructor, watching him often in those days, made me feel like crying. He’d grown big enough quickly enough for it to be clear he wouldn’t stop growing, that this was just a passing phase, his being five.
Drying him after his nightly bath, I’d felt stubble on his legs. It seemed too soon. It couldn’t be seen, the stubble, but it was there, short and scratchy, ready to advance.
Finn and I shared a bench by the side of the pool. Ordinarily I'd be in the water with him, doing monkey crawls along the side, catching him when he jumped from the edge, rescuing him from the depths when he plunged under. But not with a cast on his arm.
I took my eyes from Kolya, felt like I was losing him, that he was swimming away from me, maybe forever, and resumed reading to Finn.
“I’m not a stick! Why can’t you see, I’m fmary Man, I’m Stick Man, I’M STICK MAN, that’s me. And I want to go home to the family tree …”
Finn pulled his feet up onto the bench, snuggled into me. I squeezed him, mindful of his arm. He was three-and-a-half, would be four, fate willing, five …
“A notice says: DOGS MUST BE KEPT ON A LEAD. At last the game’s over and Stick Man is free …”
Finn looked at the drawings of a stick trying to get back to his wife and children. I looked at Kolya. He was smiling at his instructor, engaged.
On the way to the pool, in the new car that had replaced our creaking Holden Nova and was bleeding Jess and me dry, he’d said he liked his new instructor. He’d liked the previous woman too, he said, but this one was better.
The ends of yellow noodle floats emerged from the water; the three children straddled them as if they were horses. They were practising their stroke, a rudimentary front crawl, just the arms. I’d never learnt it. I was a breaststroke swimmer, it was so unmanly. Blokes take strokes. Jess’s dad, Paul, took a stroke that nearly killed him. But he was a fighter, that’s what he’d said. He’d fought.
Finn said his arm was itchy, and rubbed the cast.
It had happened in the hills, at the property Jess’s mum, Julie, and stepdad, Simon, were in the process of building with two other couple friends.
We were sitting at the dining table. Jess had just finished telling Julie and Simon we were thinking – in an unplanned way – of maybe, possibly, depending on how things worked out – going to live in South America.
Julie dragged a serrated knife through a salad roll, passed it to Simon. He stared at it, as if doing so might turn the lettuce to lamb. His diet had taken a hit since his mesenteric excision; his digestive system still worked, but only just.
As a butcher’s son, eating meat had been second nature, but those days were gone. He wanted to pretend otherwise, and would sometimes eat a sausage, a burger. Then he’d be up all night, trapped in the bathroom, groaning.
Jess and I had been nervous about mentioning South America. I was still struggling to come to terms with the fact it was Jess’s idea this time, not mine. I’d wanted us to go and live there for years. My friend Gonzalo was from Chile, but Jesus – Gonzalo ... The plan … there was no plan. We thought maybe Chile, maybe Argentina. The boys might learn guitar, Jess and I might learn tango.
“Do you know anyone there, darling?” Julie said. “What if the boys get sick or have an accident?”
“They’ll be fine,” said Jess.
“They have hospitals in South America,” I said.
And then: thump.
Kolya and Finn had been sitting at opposite ends of the table looking bored. Now there was only Kolya. Finn had fallen, as he often did, but his silence wasn’t followed by wailing. There were soft sobs, measured sniffles. I rushed round the table, got to my knees; he was belly-down, looking at his arm.
Simon laughed behind me. I managed at pains not to turn and shoot him a go-fuck-yourself look.
“Oh dear,” he said. “Finny’s fallen again.”
Jess didn’t laugh. Me either.
“This is bad,” said Jess, crouching next to Finn and me.
“I know,” I said, holding Finn’s head. We were in the hills, far from Melbourne. We’d have to drive him to the nearest town, an hour away down winding roads, to a Saturday night Accident & Emergency ward. Or maybe not.
I lifted Finn across the room to the sofa, waited for Jess to sit, then placed him on her lap. He sniffed, held his wrist.
“Finny,” said Simon coming across and cramping us. I was on my knees, Finn was on Jess’s, sobbing, sniffling.
“Can you wiggle your fingers, Finny? For Pa?”
I was poised, ready to slap Simon’s hand away if he got too close. Finn tried to move his hand, couldn’t. No, he could, wait, just a little, but not much.
I had the feeling in that moment we would never go to South America. The travel gods were angry with us, they had spoken.
Julie got some gauze from the First Aid kit, gave it to me. I set about wrapping Finn’s wrist in a tight figure-of-eight. I lifted him from Jess’s lap, lay him on the chair next to the sofa and covered him with a blanket, after which he passed out quickly.
When he woke 20 minutes later I was still kneeling in front of him, stroking his head. He had the look of a computer that had shut down and restarted.
He watched me staring at him, stuck his tongue out. His arms were under the blanket.
“Do you remember getting your bandage on?” I said.
He shook his head, looked under the blanket, smiled.
“What happened?” I said. “Why did you fall off the stool?”
He gave it some thought, looked at the window, said: “My arm wanted to go outside.”
The next day he rode his balance bike without complaining. The day after that, back in the city, Jess took him to the doctor, who told her Finn had a buckle fracture on his wrist. The X-ray showed a nick out of the bone, a U-shaped dent.
I finished work early, dropped Jess and Finn at the children’s hospital around tea-time. It would be an hour, maybe longer, until they were finished.
I drove Kolya to a restaurant near our house for pizza. It was exciting for me to have some time alone with him, exciting for him to have a fizzy orange drink. After eating we walked around the darkened block, looking in the windows of closed shops.
We stopped outside a tattoo parlour that was still doing business, watched a man on a reclining chair being inked.
“Can I get one, Daddy?” said Kolya. He loved his tattoos, the stick-on kind.
“They’re forever,” I said. “Not the stick-on ones. “Do you want to have one that lasts forever?”
“I do, I really do,” he said.
“You can’t.” I said. “You’re too young.”
He relented grumpily. In a few days I’d be 17,000 kilometres away, visiting his grandma. He’d never see her again, except on FaceTime. She’d never see him again, except the same. And even then it was hard to get him to engage.
For weeks I’d been trying to nudge him to the screen with everything from guile to unmasked anger – neither worked often or for long. He’d get bored, put on silly voices, mope out of view, run away.
I wanted Kolya to want to see my mum, so I could tell him when she was gone that they used to talk together, that he’d enjoyed it. I wanted him to know that her being gone, like getting a tattoo, was forever. I wanted him to play along for my mum’s sake, so that she had the best relationship the internet could facilitate.
“Do you remember when you were little, before we emigrated?” I said. “When Grandma visited.”
“With the squirrels?” he said.
“That’s right,” I said. “You chased them in the park with Grandma. Round and round the tree.”
He didn’t remember, I was sure, but he remembered me telling him about it. My mum remembered it, I knew, because she mentioned it frequently.
I wanted Kolya and my mum to have an ongoing relationship for my sake, so I could know it existed and not feel bad for being so far away with my boys, the twin lights of her life. On FaceTime she always said she loved them to the moon and back. How far was that? At what point did distance become irrelevant?
I yawned, lying back on the carpet between the boys’ beds, and said that once upon a time there had been two boys called Beebop and Ping Pong. They didn’t live in a Brunswick weatherboard with a big tree in the garden; they lived far away, in a cabin, in a magical forest.
One day, Beebop went out to chop some wood for the fire – because that was his job, to keep his family warm.
He was carrying his axe and wood basket. He came to the bottom of a beautiful tree and stopped. He’d never seen this one before. It was gigantic.
He spat on his hands, swung the axe behind his head and was about to swing it forwards, when he heard—
“No, no, no,” said Finn.
Beebop turned round to see who had spoken but—
“There was nobody there,” said Kolya.
“That’s right,” I said. “There was nobody there.” But there was a bird, a beautiful bird, who told Beebop that the tree was very special, so he shouldn’t chop it down. At the top, way up through the clouds, there were magical things, amazing things, beyond Beebop’s wildest dreams. He should climb up, he’d see.
Beebop dropped his axe and started climbing. Holding onto one branch then another, he moved, slowly at first, getting faster and faster until he was climbing as quickly as he ever had.
He turned and saw his house, so small, so far below, and noticed smoke coming from the chimney. The fire, he thought, my family.
Before he knew it, he was up above the clouds, and noticed something funny on his hands.
“A feather,” shouted Finn.
And then another feather, and another. He reached behind his neck because it was itchy and found more feathers, and realised—
“He was turning into a bird,” said Kolya.
The beautiful bird from the forest was still hovering beside him, wings flapping. The bird told Beebop it was OK, he could let go, and then it flew away. Beebop was scared to let go – he was so high up – but his hands had changed into claws and they were tender and he couldn’t hold on much longer.
He let go and started falling, falling, then he waved his arms about and … he was flying! Oh, he loved it! He soared this way! He soared that way! He was happy, he was free … flapping—
“My arm hurts,” said Finn.
“Does it, sweetheart?”
I got up, felt a twinge in my back, tucked Finn’s arm back under the covers, kissed him.
One day, a long time later, Beebop-the-bird was back in the forest. He saw a boy coming towards him, carrying an axe and a basket. It was Ping Pong! He was older and bigger than before.
Ping Pong stopped in front of a tree – the magic tree! He spat on his hands, swung the axe behind his back, and Beebop-the-bird shouted—
“No, no, no,” said Kolya.
But Ping Pong didn’t hear those words. What he heard was—
“Tweet, tweet, tweet,” said Finn.
Ping Pong raised the axe again and ignored the strange bird’s tweeting. He swung the axe as hard as he could against the tree trunk. When he’d cut the tree to the ground he chopped it into little pieces and carried the heavy wood basket back to the cabin.
Beebop-the-bird followed Ping Pong to the cabin and perched outside on the windowsill looking in. His mummy and daddy were sitting by the fireside. They looked very sad, as if they’d been upset for a very long time.
Beebop-the-bird tried to tell them he was OK, tapped on the windowpane with his beak, but they didn’t hear him. Ping Pong threw the wood from the magic tree onto the fire. The flames were so bright! His mummy and daddy smiled and stroked his hair.
Beebop-the-bird flew up to the roof and sat on the edge of the chimney, feeling warm and sad.
Kolya clapped. Finn stared at the roof. Neither boy looked particularly drowsy.
“It’s late,” I said. “Off to sleep now. Daddy loves you.”
“I love you, Daddy,” said Finn.
“I hate you, Daddy,” said Kolya.
Banner image. Frankenstein. By Finn Dalgarno.